Feeding the 20 million. In a joint statement published Tuesday, the executive directors of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Director-General (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and UNICEF officially declared famine in the Greater Unity Region of South Sudan, with two additional counties (yes, counties) facing a similar threat. It is the worst hunger catastrophe since fighting in the region flared up more three years ago, according to WFP.
But South Sudan represents just one-quarter of a larger story about unprecedented need. UNICEF reports “almost 1.4 million children are at imminent risk of death from severe acute malnutrition this year, as famine looms in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.” With the exception of Somalia, where a failed 2016 rainy season exacerbated an existing food crisis, conditions in the other three countries are mostly the result of ongoing conflict and its related casualties: displacement, rising food prices, and trade disruption.
“The severe malnutrition and looming famine are largely man-made,” said UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake in a press release published Tuesday. “Our common humanity demands faster action.”
Here’s what a formal declaration of famine means: people have already died of hunger. As many as 100,000 face starvation in parts of South Sudan, with another 1 million “on the brink” (also a formal classification). Those numbers include as many as 270,000 children. The official declaration is a crucial step in efforts to prevent a catastrophe like the one experienced in Somalia in 2011, when at least 260,000 people died from hunger after what had been considered a successful agricultural season.
“In my not quite 15 years with the World Food Programme, this is the first time that we are literally talking about famine in four different parts of the world at the same time,” WFP chief economist Arif Husain told Reuters last week. “When we declare famine, it means many lives have already been lost,” he went on to say. “If we wait to find that out for sure, people are already dead.”
So, what is needed? Well, cash assistance from world governments, for starters. But more important, “unimpeded” access to the most vulnerable people, said WFP country director Joyce Luma in its statement about South Sudan. Read between the lines here: “There is only so much that humanitarian assistance can achieve in the absence of meaningful peace and security, both for relief workers and the crisis-affected people they serve.”
Since meaningful peace and security in these regions are indeed currently absent—and seemingly beyond reach—we may be left to make meaning of 20 million human voices, silenced by starvation. And sooner than we think. “All this within the next six months, or now,” said Husain in his interview with Reuters. “Yemen is now, Nigeria is now, South Sudan is now.”